Play till You Drop

Making a living off of other people's music has a way of snuffing out ambition. After all, regardless of how flashy, funny and technically adept you are, you can only go so far aping other musicians' work before your credibility levels off, motivation wanes and the once-sustaining party-band circuit shrinks to a form-fitting cocoon that begins to feel more and more like a straitjacket. This is something that the founding members of the Gingbreadmen came to realize early on as kids making a respectable living with various cover acts around San Antonio. It was a good time for a while -- at least until the guys sobered up enough to realize that they were going nowhere fast. Singer/guitarist Henry Gutierrez remembers well the turning point, when fun gave way to drudgery.

"We were just doing it for the parties and the money," he says. "And eventually, when all the party tunes had been played -- all the Ramones songs had been learned and everything -- [we] just wanted to evolve to something else."

So Gutierrez and his buddies went to work, listening to Sly and the Family Stone and other "stuff that our parents had listened to," he says. "And [we] just really started diggin' it." Next came the decision, as Gutierrez puts it, to "get more serious about our musicianship."

"This was in San Antonio, where there weren't a lot of young bands really kickin' it in any sort of original style," he adds. "It was tough because we had to come out and say 'Look, we could totally do a different kind of music, it doesn't have to be cover tunes.' "

And so, by 1990, the most serious in ambition had congregated, and the Gingbreadmen came into being. A funk band with a light dusting of jazz ("but not jazzy," insists Gutierrez), the Gingbreadmen's influences are firmly focused in a '70s state of mind -- particularly George Clinton and his Parliament brigade, who, two decades ago, forever altered, and electrified, the course of rock and soul.

Gutierrez also cites other disparate sources of inspiration, including the rhythm-heavy jazz-rock fusion of the less-prolific '70s act Rufus and, interestingly enough, Houston jazz musician Larry Slezak, who's also an instructor at Rice University. The Gingbreadmen vibe is thick with a dirtier, funk-inspired nonsense than that of fellow Austin bands Sunflower and Ugly Americans, but all three are exploiting, to equally desirable effect, the Grateful Dead-inspired H.O.R.D.E. mentality wrought by Blues Traveler, Phish and other bigger bands. While the Gingbreadmen sound locks into that familiar jam band aesthetic, its riffs are saucier and its pot-hazed instrumental interludes tied more closely to an exceedingly forceful backbeat and airtight horn section.

As for the band's name, trumpet player Ed McNames is given credit for coming up with it. Be careful not to lengthen the identifier to "Gingerbreadmen," or you'll elicit evil stares from the guys in the group. Ask why it's spelled the way it is, and you'll be hit with any number of tall tales -- like how they had to drop the "er" because it wouldn't fit on a flier advertising an upcoming performance. But the truth is, as band members will ultimately admit, the name has always been just Gingbreadmen.

But while the name has remained constant, the people using it have not. Since its inception, Gingbreadmen has endured a significant number of personnel changes. Now reasonably stable, the group's current lineup includes founding members Gutierrez, bassist/ vocalist John Vogelsang, tenor saxophonist/vocalist Aaron "Ducky" Marquardt and trumpeter Ed McNames. Added to that are two later arrivals, drummer/percussionist Rob Kidd and recent addition Raul Vallejo on trombone.

In 1992, after taking the band as far as they could in their hometown, the Gingbreadmen made what has become an increasingly necessary exodus from San Antonio to Austin. The group settled in quickly along Sixth Street, where regular gigs at Flamingo Cantina, attended religiously by a die-hard core of fans, earned them the title of best funk band two years running (1992 and 1993) at the Austin Chronicle music awards. In a town where scraping together any sort of positive recognition can be a monumental chore, the Gingbreadmen -- humble and carefree as they are -- didn't let all the notice go to their heads. For a while, the relative youngsters -- age range 23 to 27 -- even took a stab at the "college student by day/musician by night" lifestyle. But increasing obligations on the Sixth Street night shift warranted postponing school for the time being.

The Gingbreadmen's first full-length recording, Cosmic Cow, was released in 1993 on the band's own Breadhouse Music label. While the CD's ten tracks were, for the most part, self-produced, the Gingbreadmen got a little Hollywood help from seasoned Los Angeles producer/engineer Angelo Earl.

"[He's] an L.A. cat, a serious musician," says Gutierrez. "If it weren't for him, I don't know if the album would have sounded as good as it did for what it was. We were very young in the studio, and he helped us out a lot."

Largely disproving the old theory that most funk bands sound better on-stage than on tape, Cosmic Cow does a respectable job of recreating the Gingbreadmen's live grit, as well as the hefty grooves that drive listeners to dance -- or, at the very least, tap their feet. The CD offers almost an hour of the group's amalgam of funk, ska and thrash (including the searing, Hendrix-influenced highlight, "Psycho Mushroom") -- a healthy, full-throated showing for a bunch whose only previous experience in the studio had been a thin-sounding, hastily assembled three-song demo tape.

Since Cosmic Cow's release, the touring has continued almost nonstop -- often at a daunting pace of 20 gigs a month in cities and college towns all over the Southeast, Midwest and Southwest. The heavy schedule is beginning to pay off, garnering the Gingbreadmen a wide fan base and respectable airplay on college radio. While they've opened for respected national acts such as Fishbone, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Los Lobos, the Gingbreadmen say they were most bowled over by the recent opportunity to open for Tower of Power at New Orleans' House of Blues. But seeing as how their shows have been known to run as long as four hours, and that the fellows are always willing to play until the sweat coats the dance floor and the crowd drops from exhaustion, it's probably best to catch them on their own.

Of course, live shows can take a band only so far. And, admittedly, a one-album catalog isn't much, especially for a band that's been around pretty much since the '90s began. But Gutierrez firmly believes that "these days, our music has come quite a ways," adding that he's "really anxious to get back in the studio and put something new out."

That something, tentatively titled Fresh Bread, Baked Daily, is planned for a February release, providing all goes well when the Gingbreadmen head into an Austin studio at the start of next year with producer/engineer Charles Reeves (MC Overlord, Loose Diamonds, Laurie Freelove) at the helm. Gutierrez says he hopes that the upcoming CD will provide "the big push" the Gingbreadmen need to go national.

Over the years, a few small labels have approached the band, but the Gingbreadmen have opted to hold out for that bigger, better deal. The latest potential suitor to come calling was RCA. And while the Gingbreadmen are excited about the prospects of what a label that large could do for them, Gutierrez says that right now, they're content to wait it out, "just basically hanging back, focusing on the music and the songwriting. Hopefully, the rest will fall into place."

To help pay the bills until then, the Gingbreadmen have returned to the party-band circuit, playing assorted college gigs around Austin. It's easy money, to be sure. And should the frat boys turn sour over the Gingbreadmen's bundle of funkified originals, the band can always turn to its impressive list of cover tunes. Funny how things can come full circle.

The Gingbreadmen perform at 9 p.m. Wednesday, December 27, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $4. Mushroom Groovy opens. For more info, call 869-

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Joe Hon